Leaders of public radio’s regional organizations are planning a less expensive alternative to the Public Radio Super-Regional conference, which will not be held this year.
After two years of skipping the annual conference of station leaders, the regional organizations organized a Super-Regional in April 2022. But the previous cancellations ate into the reserves of the organizations, including Eastern Region Public Media, which has traditionally organized the event.
ERPM spent nearly all of its reserves on last year’s conference, according to board chair Susan Rogers, GM of WXXI in Rochester, N.Y. Attendees praised the event, but it brought in less income than before the pandemic, Rogers said. That was due in part to a 50% decrease in revenue from conference sponsors compared to the 2019 event. ERPM also lost income due to pausing member dues for a year during the pandemic.
Leaders of the organizations are now discussing options for gathering this year that wouldn’t require booking a costly venue. “What we feel people really need right now, especially leaders and general managers, is just to really spend time talking to each other, talking through the issues, getting caught up on things,” Rogers said. “So we’re looking at doing something that is a lot less like a conference and a lot more like a summit.”
The pause in holding a full-scale Super-Regional offers a time to “reset,” she said.
“I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing,” she said. “It’s just hard when everybody who’s leading these [regional] organizations also has another full-time job.”
Station leaders have indicated that they still find value in an event like the Super-Regional. Two of the regional organizations found in surveys last fall that their members want to attend a similar gathering.
In a member survey last fall, ERPM found that “networking in person has really mattered,” Rogers said. Nearly all respondents agreed that they had gotten a lot out of Super-Regionals.
When ERPM asked what people would miss if the regional organizations dissolved, some leaders said they need “a way to connect,” Rogers said.
Many station leaders run the only public radio outlet in their city, Rogers said, “and everybody in your organization reports to you. So you can’t always let your guard down and talk openly about a problem you may be having. Knowing others in that same job in a different city matters a lot, because you’re very isolated.”
A survey by Western States Public Radio found that a majority of respondents “agree or strongly agree that there is a need for a Super-Regional–type conference,” said Kerry Swanson, president of WSPR and COO of KUOW in Seattle.
“That face-to-face ability to learn and talk with each other is still very important,” he said.
WSPR members strongly agreed that stations need an organization focused on top leadership, even with so many industry organizations already focused on different functions at stations. That finding surprised WSPR’s board, Swanson said.
Public radio lacks places “where smaller stations have the chance to talk with experienced or more resourced stations,” he said. Leaders at larger stations who previously worked at small stations can “forget what’s needed to really connect with a community as much as you have to in smaller, less-resourced stations,” Swanson added. “… There’s learning that goes both ways.”
Respondents to the survey highlighted numerous areas where they need support, including staff retention, rural journalism, and engineering support for rural networks.
In response to the survey results, WSPR will hold regular webinars to discuss topics important to station leaders.
“There seems to be a tremendous need,” Swanson said.
Room ‘to just talk’
One option for this year’s summit could be a “low- or no-cost” event held at NPR in the fall, Rogers said. But that could depend on whether NPR holds an in-person annual membership meeting at the same time. NPR’s board is considering this week whether to hold the membership meeting virtually instead.
The organizations are committed to a summit, even if NPR doesn’t work out as the location, Rogers said.
Paul Maassen, president of Public Radio in Mid America and GM of WWNO in New Orleans, said he believes that the summit will be more “discussion-based,” with fewer presentations.
“We want to really leave a lot of room for us to just talk … and find out what’s going on at stations, and use that time to help us answer questions colleague to colleague,” Maassen said.
The summit could also include a “General Manager 101” training for new public radio leaders, Rogers said.
Rogers left the door open to the possibility of returning to a larger conference in future years. “This is not to say that we won’t decide this fall that next year we need to do a full-on conference,” she said.
I am not an expert on holding conferences by any measure, but I do know a bit more than the average bear. The way I see it, there are three rules to live by control costs of your conference. And controlling costs is the name of the game (revenue is, of course, important, but it’s harder and thus more important to control your costs).
1. Hold the conference in a city and at a time where/when flights are cheap for a lot of your attendees. In general, holding a conference on either coast is a bad idea because it jacks up the flight costs for anyone NOT on that coast.
2. The hotel is the killer. Be aggressive about picking a city based on where you can get the best deal for both the conference venue and also for hotel rooms for your attendees. One big reason why nobody wants to hold conferences in the northeast (if they can avoid it) is because hotels in every city north and/or east of Philadelphia cost a bloody fortune.
3. Scale helps. The bigger your conference, the more likely you are to get better deals. So consider partnering or co-locating your conference with another conference. This is why there’s so many concurrent events/conferences/mini-conferences around the annual NAB show in Vegas every April. (it also doesn’t hurt that Vegas has a lot of easy/inexpensive flights, and ample hotel room…although the fact that Vegas is a “conference town” cuts both ways because they’ve thought of every possible way to squeeze you for money, too)
BTW, in the abstract Paul has a great idea to provide room to “just talk” but as anyone who’s ever been forced into a two-day off-site retreat that DOESN’T have a professional facilitator can tell you? The idea is nice, but the reality is ugly. If you want to have a productive conversation…instead of a giant ego-driven festival of sitting around shooting the s**t…you need a proper structure and some trained facilitators to set the agenda and guide the discussion.
Sitting around shooting the s**t CAN happen, of course. I daresay it’s an important part of networking and relationship-building amongst leaders! But save it for the lunch break, or the cocktail hour before dinner, or whatever. Don’t let that take over the majority of the day.
This is all very important and accurate info. Its spot on.